Angolans vote as complaints over inequality swell

Reuters News

8/31/2012 5:17:47 AM - Reuters News

By Shrikesh Laxmidas and Pascal Fletcher

LUANDA (Reuters) - Angolans voted on Friday in a one-sided election expected to prolong President Jose Eduardo dos Santos' nearly 33 years in power, but many citizens said they wanted to see a more equal share-out of wealth in Africa's No. 2 oil producer.

Calls for better services, such as power, water, health and education, and demands for greater social equity, were an insistent theme as voters cast their ballots in the seaside capital Luanda and across the southern African nation.

It is only the third national election since Angola won independence from Portugal in 1975, and the second since the end a decade ago of a 27-year civil war whose scars can still be seen in damaged buildings and amputee land mine victims.

"To destroy is easy, but to construct is more difficult," said Graca, a Luanda grandmother, who gave only her first name as she went to vote, carrying her baby granddaughter in one arm and her voter's card in the other hand.

"I hope that there can be peace and that we learn to divide what we have, the riches we have," she added.

Dos Santos' ruling MPLA is expected to win comfortably at the expense of smaller and weaker opposition parties, giving the silver-haired president a further five years in office on top of the 33 years he has already been in power.

But he faces a groundswell of discontent among ordinary Angolans unhappy about the unequal distribution of their country's oil wealth, and this may be reflected in the size of the MPLA victory or the voter turnout.

National elections commission chief Andre da Silva Neto said initial results were likely to be announced on Saturday.

Dos Santos is Africa's second longest serving leader after Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Opponents and civil society critics say he has created a "one-person state" marked by rampant corruption and the conspicuous enrichment of a small elite, including his own family.

"Democracy is the power of the people and today the people have the power in their hands", Dos Santos, wearing a dark blue Cuban-style 'guayabera' shirt, told reporters after voting at a heavily guarded school just down the hill from the presidential palace in Luanda. He left in a fleet of black limousines.

Before the vote, Elias Isaac, Angola country director for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), a pro-democracy NGO, told Reuters the one-sided election would not pass muster as a credible democratic exercise.

"We can't really talk of transparent, fair and just elections," Isaac said.

The MPLA's monolithic hold on the state and its control of most local media gave it clear advantages in an uneven campaign over the former rebel group UNITA and seven other smaller coalitions and parties fielding candidates. Opposition leaders complained of irregularities in the vote preparations.

Around 9.7 million Angolans are registered to vote at more than 10,000 polling stations. The election will appoint 220 lawmakers, and the leader of the winning party automatically becomes president for a five-year term.

CLAMOUR FOR MORE EQUALITY

The month-long campaign was generally peaceful, marred only by an incident on Thursday in which police detained a dozen members of the CASA-CE opposition party when they tried to enter the national elections commission to demand credentials to observe the vote.

The MPLA, trying to repeat its crushing 2008 election win over UNITA with 82 percent of the vote, has sought to ram home the message that Dos Santos, who turned 70 this week, represents the best guarantee of peace and prosperity.

But the MPLA campaign slogan "Make Angola grow more and distribute better" reflects the ruling party's awareness that it needs to address the popular clamor for more social equity.

Some voters said they would hold Angola's leaders to this pledge.

"I hope the president will carry out his promises to work better and distribute things more," said retired civil servant Josefa Van Dunem da Silva Ferreira, who was among the first to vote at the Puniv Central high school in Luanda.

Others took a more sanguine view of the progress made since the destructive civil war. There has been a rash of fresh infrastructure construction - roads, bridges, hospitals, railway stations and airports - mostly built by Chinese and Portuguese companies.

"This country had a lot of war, you have to give it time," said Guillermina Pereira, another Luanda resident, as she voted.

Observers from the Southern African Development Community, the African Union and the Community of Portuguese-Speaking States, of which Angola is a member, are witnessing the vote.

But there are no formal observer missions from the European Union or the United States, both major importers of Angola's oil along with China. Some senior diplomats from Western embassies said they had not received credentials to observe the voting.

WATERFRONT FACELIFT, WATERLESS SLUMS

The MPLA's dominance reflects Dos Santos' more than three decades in power during which the reserved Soviet-trained oil engineer, with military help from Cuba and the Soviet Union, survived Cold War offensives by South African apartheid forces and defeated first the FNLA and then UNITA in the civil war.

An oil boom fuelled rapid growth averaging 15 percent a year between 2002 and 2008 and economic prospects remain buoyant, but distribution of this wealth among Angola's 18 million people has been very unequal. Thrusting new buildings and construction cranes punctuate the bayside skyline of Luanda, but sprawling poor slums known as "musseques" fringe the overcrowded city.

On his 70th birthday on Tuesday, Dos Santos inaugurated a $360 million facelift for Luanda's waterfront promenade amid a crowd of dignitaries, the latest of a string of big-ticket infrastructure projects opened by the MPLA during campaigning.

Just a few minutes from the renovated, palm-lined seafront is the dusty Sambizanga "musseque" where Dos Santos was born.

At one corner stands a water point which locals say has not yielded running water for three or four years. "We don't need much to fix this," said Maria Dos Santos Campos, gesturing to the dry water stand and comparing it with the millions spent on the seafront promenade.

"Angola is a rich country ... our party in power needs to do more and talk less," she said

(Writing by Pascal Fletcher, editing by Tim Pearce)